Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Rejuvenated Downtowns (1959)

The March 1, 1959 edition of Arthur Radebaugh's Closer Than We Think! featured "rejuvenated downtowns" of the future. I travel the United States often imagining what the downtowns of our major cities once looked like. Few American downtowns are thriving, or barely surviving. The downtown of the city in which I live (St. Paul, MN) is certainly struggling. Good luck finding much open past 5PM.

Radebaugh's mention of downtown Detroit is particularly jarring for our 2009 eyes. The recent photo essay in Time magazine titled, "The Remains of Detroit" really says it all. I recently picked up the book Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950, which appears to shed some light on precisely what happened to the American urban center.

The text from "Rejuvenated Downtowns" appears below. Thanks again to Tom Z. for the color scans.
Traffic-choked downtown sections will be rejuvenated and transformed into airy, wide pedestrian malls when the designs of city planners are adopted in a none-too-distant future.

Large-scale plans and programs are springing up all over the country. One example is fashionable Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, being studied today for conversion into a traffic-free shopping promenade. Another is utilitarian Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit. There are many more in between.

Traffic will be parked in adjoining areas. Store fronts will be modernized and beautified. New lighting at night and newly planted trees, shrubs and flowers will give these malls an exciting air. The aim is to regain for downtowns their former status as urban headquarters.

Next week: All-Seeing Eye

Previously on Paleo-Future:
California Cities in the Year 2000 (1961)
Closer Than We Think! (1958-1963)
Experimental City of the Future (1967)
Walt Disney and City Planning


Unknown said...

It looks like Downtown Las Vegas, only without the Casinos, fat Tourists & Trash.

Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews said...

Wow. They predicted gentrification 20 years before the word was even coined.

Christine said...

Wow, I found this post so neat, because I'm playing the retro future classic, Fallout, right now :-)

Our downtown has been a concrete mausoleum since as long as I can remember. Everyone flees back to the suburbs at 5pm. Not much to do on the weekend either because a lot of shops are closed. Given all the new condo trees around downtown, that surprises me. What do the downtownies do? :-) The Downtown Association tries to keep people after work with ads of fashionable young women shopping or fashionable young people chilling out on a patio, beating the rush hour. They sorely missed the demographic because most office workers don't seem to be very young (or fashionable) here :-)

Loved the link to Detroit. It reminded me of one of my fave websites, Forgotten Detroit, which hasn't been updated since 2005 sadly.

Matt said...

Yes, gentrification is right.

By the way, check out the kid sitting at the table in the center of the picture - he looks like he has a 45-year-old head.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

If we had taken seriously plans like this for the future, we would be living in such a reality now, rather than lamenting our present.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that kid *is* creepy.

Downtowns wouldn't have decayed (and needed to be "saved") if it hadn't been for policies promoting freeways and suburbs after WWII. Some of these pedestrian malls were put in and became very successful -- I'm thinking Santa Monica and Burlington, VT as examples -- and others failed miserably. But on the whole, we have seen a resurgence of downtowns tied in large part to (i) increasing residences, such as condos, and (ii) removal of car-oriented development such as freeways cutting through downtowns, streets 100 yards wide, and mega-blocks not conducive to walking. For example, think how Boston or San Francisco have been transformed when their double-decker freeways were removed.

Anonymous said...

I was just in downtown Detroit over the holidays. The atmosphere was apocalyptic to say the least. No pre-Christmas shopping frenzy because there's no place to shop; most storefronts are abandoned. Except for the redeveloped Riverfront area, there's just blight (it must have been a great city in its prime). Yet, some of the old downtown buildings are being rehabbed as condos. But I wondered who would dare live there, and what would they do if they moved in? There's hardly any mass transit in Detroit (except for the anemic "People Mover"). Perhaps these new "downtowners" would drive to Ann Arbor to get their weekend dose of culture...?

JaynaPavlin said...

I just have to say I love your blog.

Anonymous said...

We did that. Pedestrian malls were created in many downtowns in big and small cities in the 60's and 70's. It didn't work. It turns out that people don't feel safe walking on urban streets that have been emptied of traffic flow. As pedestrians shunned the spaces that were supposedly improved for their benefit, shops closed their doors, which made the "malls" even scarier with less foot traffic, creating a vicious cycle that led to some of them becoming a complete no-man's land in the middle of a city. Over the last decade or so most of them have been reconverted into normal streets, and foot traffic and business prospects improved as vehicular traffic returned.

Anonymous said...

"Pedestrian malls were created in many downtowns in big and small cities in the 60's and 70's. It didn't work."

Same as in my city. They put a mall in the core of our downtown, and when the street traffic left, so did the business. It reopened to traffic a few years ago and is still trying to rebound - competing with other downtown districts that have always been car-accessible, and of course, the 'burbs.

Anonymous said...

its working in europe

Anonymous said...

Chicago actually lives in this paleo-future. When you compare our downtown to what it was like when I was a kid 40 years ago, you'd think it was a different city altogether.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most interesting blogs I've come across. Its wild to see what people that the future would look like and whether they were completely wrong or maybe came close.

Cheers........Good Work!!

Alex said...

There are so many towns around the San Francisco Bay Area that look ready for such a scheme. I've seen many towns in Britain where they just close off the High Street to traffic, put a one way system around it and it's a great success.

There are none I can think of between San Francisco and San Jose, not even Palo Alto or Mountain View where the sidewalks are crowded and you have to park one block to either side anyway. They do close down the main street once in a while for some sort of market or arts and wine fair. Why not every weekend?

Maybe it's because it happened in the UK as we were getting cars (one per household levels), in the 1960's and 70's, rather than here in the US when they were thinking about it after everyone had cars in the 50's. In Europe it was a prevention of access rather than an exclusion of access.

The other thing that may have tipped the balance would be if the town were a destination rather than somewhere you drive through in passing. I know by-passes were the kiss of death to towns which already had a pedestrianized high street (Whitchurch Cheshire).

Anonymous said...

I find it most surprising that many posters here say this scheme failed in the US, bcos when I saw the picture I was amazed at how well this represents the present... in Europe. Around here the "car-free city centre" as well as "suburban community/commercial centres" are promoted models and large pedestrian areas and arcades have popped up everywhere during the last couple of years. Of course, with public transportation and public parking lots / underground parking being very well developed, businesses do not really need to fear a lack of cars equalling a lack of customers.